Friendly Chats with Strangers

I was born and raised in a region of the country that is like no other. It was settled by different ethnic immigrant groups, a century and a half ago, who created villages on the rolling prairie landscape. Because of isolation from the comparatively excessive and extravagant growth along the east and west coasts of the United States, the smaller towns in the Upper Midwest still retain a good deal of their unique heritage and are mostly unaffected by the more modern winds of fashionable living. The Amish are thriving there, if that is any indication of what the residents value. The larger cities have only modest, and ambivalent, aspirations to be like their coastal counterparts, but most established neighborhoods within those cities usually do not. Houses are still passed down through generations. Most residents outside the big cities view the events and obsessions of the heavily populated coastal megalopolises as one would observe, from a window in the comfortable parlor, a parade pass in front of their house and vanish down the street. As a region, it still feels much like a collection of villages.

I return a couple of times each year to visit family and to detox from the hurried and stressful life of the East Coast. Things change upon entering the airplane- the whole atmosphere is different- kind, friendly, uncompetitive. I can dress as casually as I like and nobody cares. Exiting the airport there is sweet silence. Grand serenity. I can breathe! I am surrounded by people I have never met but there is a pervasive feeling, which moves about like a warm spring breeze, that we are all neighbors and friends. Something wonderful thrives in this type of environment. I can talk freely with the cashier in the store or sit on a sidewalk bench and strike up a conversation with a stranger. I am someplace where someone you don’t know is considered to be friendly, trustworthy, there for you if you need help. I am assumed to be a friend first, rather than a criminal. It feels good.

Part of living among this collection of villages is the collective memory that persists through generations and the long-lived connections that people value. Once, while traveling up the Great River Road along the upper Mississippi River, I stopped in Red Wing, Minnesota. I was passing through downtown and decided to stop into a bookstore that, according to the sign on the door, was nearing its closing hour. It looked friendly and it would be nice to take a break from driving. The woman behind the counter greeted me in the kind and reserved way that is part of this culture. Emotional extravagance is not part of our vocabulary. I didn’t find anything that interested me, but we struck up a conversation. I told her I was visiting from Florida but was born and raised in Dubuque. She thought for a bit and told me that she had been there several times to visit her aunt, and that she thought it was a nice town. She told how her aunt died in Dubuque several years earlier and that she was well taken care of in a nursing home run by Catholic nuns. Well, my mother was in such a home there as well. We soon learned, through our conversation, that her aunt had died in the same nursing home where my mother had died and where my sister still worked! I summoned my cell phone and called my sister- it turned out that she was one of the staff that took care of this woman’s aunt. At that moment, as strangers who would never meet again, we both felt a warm and special bond.

These kinds of experiences are not rare there. Most times while chatting with local residents in small towns, last names are exchanged. With little effort, I will know someone who knows them. Or they will know my family. My father’s brother was a popular and well-loved musician in the region in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. He was most known for barn dance music, as it was known then. He would play polkas, Western music and standards to audiences that came to dance and socialize with their friends. I still meet people who, upon hearing my family name, will light up and recall my uncle’s band. One woman almost cried as she told me that she met her late husband at one of my uncle’s dances. Another woman told me that she had the best time of her life going out to the barn dances with her husband and their friends, most of whom are now gone. I am always moved when I find these kinds of connections with strangers. How many I have never discovered because I never said “hello” to someone I have never met!

We all need, from time to time, to get away and spend time in a village where strangers believe the best in you. Places with deep histories and heritages, where people are stable and secure in their livelihoods. Places that are isolated from the daily grind and harassments of careers, business and responsibilities. These refuges, not the overwhelming presence of big cities, are where perspective, renewal and rest are found.

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